Yes, Delhi Metro is more unaffordable than the New York City Subway

My own experience shows that the Delhi Metro pinches the minimum survival expense of a well-off Delhite at least twice as hard as the NYC subway does to a poor New Yorker

By Avikal Somvanshi
Published: Monday 24 September 2018
Delhi Metro
A Delhi Metro and a New York City Subway card belonging to the author       Credit: Avikal Somvanshi A Delhi Metro and a New York City Subway card belonging to the author Credit: Avikal Somvanshi

Mayhem broke loose earlier in the month over my sister-team’s study finding that Delhi Metro is the second most unaffordable mass-transit system in the world (among comparable systems). Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) issued a sloppy attack on the study methodology, senior politicians from across the political spectrum traded jibes on Twitter while a Public Interest Litigation was moved in the Delhi High Court.

My social media has been inundated with comments from people who could not wrap their head around at least two things; how come Delhi is more expensive than cities like New York City (NYC) or London, and is Delhi Metro expensive or are Delhi people poor? Both are valid queries, and to honestly answer these, one needs to first answer the question, affordable for whom?

 Affordable for whom?

NYC is the fourth most expensive city to live in the world according to the global cost of living and rent index. Delhi is placed 442 on this index. By this yardstick, the NYC subway must be a exponentially more expensive system?

NYC Subway’s single ride ticket is US$ 3.0 (Rs 210), it is distance-agnostic, allows one free subway-bus and bus-bus interchange within the first 3 hours of journey start. On the other hand, the maximum one-way fare of Delhi Metro is Rs 60 and doesn’t provide free interchange to buses or feeder services. Courtesy the currency exchange rate, this may seem considerably more expensive to an Indian tourist visiting the original “City That Never Sleeps” but is it unaffordable for a New Yorker?

The per capita income of NYC is about Rs 49 lakh (US$ 64,000) annually while Delhi’s per capita income stands around Rs 3 lakh (USD 4,300) annually. In other words, buying a ticket to Delhi Metro burns a 5 times bigger hole in the annual income of an average Delhite than a NYC subway ticket does to an average New Yorker’s purse.  

It is clear from this highly rudimentary maths that Delhi Metro is relatively more expensive for Delhites. But per capita based calculation as used by DMRC in justification of its fare structure doesn’t quite answer the question if it is unaffordable.

Understanding minimum survival expense

Affordability is a function of minimum survival expense and not the average. Per capita income is unfairly pulled higher by massive discretionary income of the ultra-rich. Discretionary income is the amount of an individual's income available for spending after taxes and the essentials (such as food, medicine, rent or mortgage, utilities, insurance, transportation, property maintenance, child support, etc.) have been taken care of.

Computing minimum survival expense is tricky but monthly house rent can work as a decent proxy for it as house rent is typically its biggest sub-head. Let see my personal data from this lens.

I lived in NYC as a graduate student for a year. My fixed monthly stipend of US$ 2,000 placed me somewhere in between the 20-25th percentile of NYC households. Over 45 per cent of it was paid as the rent for my room in a shared flat. The NYC Subway monthly pass (unlimited rides) cost US$ 121, about 6 per cent of monthly income or 13.3 per cent of my house rent. Please note that the monthly pass gave me unlimited rides on both the metro and bus network and therefore, it covers all commute needs (work and recreational).

In Delhi, I bicycle to work, but my sister tries to use the Metro to commute to her office about 14 km away from her home. Income-wise, she falls in the 75-80 percentile of Delhi households and about 18 per cent of it goes towards the rent for her 1.5 room apartment. Her journey comprises walking to the main road and taking a shared e-rickshaw to the nearest metro station for Rs 10, then the metro for Rs 27 (unsubsidised cost Rs 30) and then an auto-rickshaw from the metro station to her office for Rs 40. Her one-way commute cost adds up to Rs 77. She has weekends off, so this works out to be about Rs 3,388 a month. This is about 4.5 per cent of her monthly salary and 22.6 per cent of her house rent. And it is only her basic work commute; her actual travel expense is about Rs 5,000 a month.

It is abundantly clear from this analysis that using the Delhi Metro pinches the minimum survival expense of a well-off Delhite at least twice as hard as the NYC subway does to a poor New Yorker. Keep in mind that both of us are single person households. For families with multiple commuters, the pinch is even harder.

 Surviving on minimum wages

Another way to access affordability is to simply look at the minimum wage for the lowest denomination in the city. Because a “public” transit system should work for “all.”

In NYC, the minimum wage is US$ 12 per hour, which means a minimum wage earner (who generally cannot afford to pay upfront for a monthly pass) can buy a subway return ticket working for half an hour. In Delhi, minimum wage is Rs 66.75 per hour (unskilled labour) implying they need to work for almost 2 hours to afford return ticket on the Delhi Metro (maximum fare). If the cost of accessing the metro is accounted for (it is 66 per cent of the journey cost for my sister) it can be as high as 6 hours of work. This is not just unaffordable; it is exclusionary.

It is acknowledged that people with discretionary income demand premium services and don’t mind paying extra for these. Indian Railways caters to this demand with AC and first-class coaches, but they make sure they don’t become unaffordable for the economically weak by providing general and sleeper classes.

Exclusionary by design

But Delhi Metro is not designed to provide stratified services. This fundamental deficit in its infrastructure planning should not be used to impose a fare structure which alienates a considerable section of society which is the captive user of public transit. This is a bad public policy, akin to the railways just running trains with first-class coaches and not caring about the travel needs of low-income groups.

People who travel first-class in railways can very well afford to fly economy class. My sister has a reasonably high discretionary income (her rent is just 18 per cent of her salary) which allows her to indulge in app-based cab services like Uber and Ola, which she usually does as it is next to impossible to find an auto-rickshaw or bus in the evening to ferry her to the nearest metro station. Shared cab services on these apps usually cost her about Rs 100. In short, at the current fare structure, DMRC will certainly lose out to Uber and Ola in the income section it hopes to shift to public transit as they provide better service (door to door connectivity) at a marginally higher price.

Sabotaging affordable housing  

City centres are profanely expensive to afford accommodation. One of the major advantages of a mass transit system is that it allows people to live in places that save on rent and commuting to work on a budget. It also opens greater livelihood opportunities for the economically stressed. The NYC subway beautifully serves this objective as its flat (distance and mode agnostic) fare structure allows people to freely traverse the city to optimise their survival expense as per their needs. But Delhi Metro has become a reason of economic stress for the already stressed in the city.

With governments actively moving the housing provision for economically disadvantaged to the city periphery, unaffordability of transit to access the city by them is a matter of grave concern and kudos to my colleagues for making it a public concern. A public service cannot claim to be affordable or public if it is beyond paying capacity of a citizen rightfully earning the legal minimum wage.

(Note: The exchange rate used is USD 1 = Rs 70)

My transit burden in Delhi vs New York City



New York City

Per capita income

Rs 3,00,000

USD 64,000 (Rs 49,00,000)

Minimum wage

Rs 66.75 per hour

USD 12 per hour

Single ride(maximum fare)

Rs 60

USD 3 (Rs 210)

Cost of single ride ticket to a minimum wage worker

54 minutes of work

15 minutes of work

Subsidized rate for smart card holders



Monthly pass


USD 121 (Rs 8,470)

Income percentile



Transit cost vs income



Transit cost vs rent

22.6% *


*doesn’t include cost of commute on weekends and for recreation

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :
Related Stories

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.